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Name Game: Branding Neighborhoods the Philly Way

People define themselves by where they live. I have known Philadelphians who refuse to look at homes below Girard or above South or east of the Schuykill River. Their neighborhood, and what it says about who they are and how they want to live, is important. That is why the name, and the brand, of an area is so essential -- ironically, they are also remarkably fungible.
In this city, a single business, developer or community group can have a radical impact on an area's personality, even down to the name. Philadelphia is filled with places on the verge, trying to market themselves to the next city grant, young homebuyer or pioneering business -- they're all using the tools of branding, civic engagement and development to project an identity. There is Newbold, a South Philly neighborhood that has successfully distinguished itself from its more established neighbors. There is Washington Square West, a long neglected Center City gem hoping to retain its progressive roots in the face of rapid development. Lastly, there is Callowhill, an area still struggling to realize its potential in a shifting urban landscape.
The Success Story: Newbold
Sometimes it starts with a bar. In 2002, John Longacre bought the South Philadelphia Taproom at the corner of 15th and Hicks Streets, envisioning it as a touchstone for an area (east Point Breeze) that had fallen on tough times. 
Longacre, whose company LPMG bills its philosophy as "morality based capitalism," saw a tremendous amount of potential in the neighborhood, defined as Broad to 18th Street and Tasker to Wolf, all it needed was a push in the form of a new identity. 

"When I started looking at that neighborhood, about 10 years ago, I couldn't figure out why this section of the city was such a disaster," recalls Longacre. "There were cars on the sidewalk, trash was everywhere. It was just a mess. After buying a few houses and doing some renovations, and then buying the [South Philadelphia] Taproom, I started to realize that the reason why it was like that was because there was no civic engagement. There was no community groups and the population was very transient."
At that time, the area was considered part of Point Breeze. "I went to the powers that be in Point Breeze and said, 'We're looking to carve off a little section down here to give it some identity and trying to get some development sparks going,'" explains Longacre. "Point Breeze at the time was all about it. They loved it."

Next they needed a name. "Newbold was the name of Hicks Street a long, long time ago," says Longacre. "If you look at the buildings, some of the larger ones have a limestone block that says 'Newbold Street.' I thought it was a great name because it had ties to the area and the connotations 'new' and 'bold,' which was something we were trying to do. It just seemed to work."
Once a name had been chosen, Longacre spearheaded the founding of a 501(c)(3) non-profit community development corporation and, as an offshoot, the Newbold Civic Association. The next step was to get realtors in on the new name.

"We had multiple real estate seminars in the area," explains Longacre. "I would say, this is why you should put your buyers -- particularly first-time homebuyers -- in Newbold." Those reasons include proximity to Center City, proximity to the subway and multiple commercial corridors, great housing stock, a dense population and value. As Longacre puts it,

"Nowhere else in the city can you walk outside your door, look at the skyscrapers and buy a house for $75,000 dollars." The new name and a fresh identity gave realtors and buyers a reason to take a second look.

Now, South Philly Taproom has been joined by Ultimo Coffee across the street, and Longacre has embarked on Re-Newbold, an ambitious development project on the site of the long-abandoned Drexel School. A joint project with Postgreen at 16th and Moore, Re-Newbold will be an affordable, sustainably-built collection of townhomes, apartments and retail. 

"The neighborhood is coming back," says Longacre, "but it's gonna take another 10 years before it really looks like it did back in the day. I promise all these old timers that stuck it out, some of our older neighbors who have been here for 60 years, just give it a few more years and the neighborhood will be like it was when you were a kid. You're gonna have businesses on every corner and great neighbors."
The Split Personality: Washington Square West
The Washington Square West Civic Association (WSWCA) was formed in 1935, but in the intervening years, the neighborhood's brand has experienced a series of tweaks and fissures. Now, the stretch of the city between Rittenhouse Square and Society Hill is attempting to unify that history into a single vision. 
"In the '60s and '70s, it pretty much lost its identity, except as a place for abandoned buildings," explains WSWCA president Sonia Nofziger Dasgupta. Then, in the late '70s and early '80s, a wave of development centered around 13th Street and catering to the LGBT community cemented the area's status as Philadelphia's Gayborhood.

In recent years, a stretch of 13th Street between Market and Locust has experienced another naming effort: a group of merchants banded together to call that bustling stretch of bars and restaurants Midtown Village (this is after the failure of a previous attempt to dub the area "B3" or "Blocks Below Broad"). With rapid development and a somewhat splintered identity, the civic association has had to work to balance the needs of the community.

"In the last year, we've tried to formalize a little bit our vision for the neighborhood," says Dasgupta. "One of the elements is to maintain the diversity that makes it so special. This has been a diversified neighborhood for over 250 years, which I think is very cool. How do we make sure it stays that way and doesn't just become East Rittenhouse Square?"
Their efforts involve reaching out the LGBT community, local businesses, Jefferson Hospital and nearby universities. "You have to get an energy started," explains Dasgupta. "I think we're on our way. We want to embrace the cultural heritage of the neighborhood, but also don't want to become slaves to our status as a historic district."

For now, the various identities coexist: a less expensive option for students and young families, a place for hip, reasonably-priced restaurants and a locus for LGBT life. Wash West means all those things--time will tell if the umbrella outlasts the smaller brands. 
The Up-and-Comer: Callowhill
The area bounded by Spring Garden to the North, Vine Street to the South, Broad to the west and 8th Street to the east has been so poorly defined over the years that local blogs joked about its nebulous name. Is it Eraserhood? The Loft District? Chinatown North? One thing is certain: It's a neighborhood defined by the remnants of urban manufacturing; a history that poses both opportunities and challenges.

"When we first moved here, it really didn't have a name," says John Struble, a founding member of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association (CNA). Around 2001, controversy over construction of a new Phillies stadium in the area galvanized residents, who worked in tandem with Chinatown groups to defeat the proposal. In 2002, they decided to form a neighborhood association. One of the first steps was agreeing on a name.

"We had a debate: some people wanted to call it 'Trestle Town' in reference to the [Reading] Viaduct," recalls Struble. "Some people wanted to call it the Loft District, in reference to the types of housing here. But the major thoroughfare is Callowhill."

Like many people, Struble was drawn to the neighborhood by reasonable housing prices. In the last five years, an influx of new residents has led to the opening of two key urban touchstones -- a coffee shop (Cafe Lift) and a bar with interesting beer and good food (Prohibition Taproom). 
One major potential asset for the neighborhood is the Reading Viaduct, a derelict old section of railway that residents and city officials envision as a local incarnation of New York City's wildly successful High Line. Obviously, if the park is realized, it will radically change the complexion of the neighborhood, and maybe even the name. There was a nod to that fact in the failed "Callowhill Reading Viaduct Neighborhood Improvement District" plan. A move that would have set aside money for street cleaning and lighting improvements, but also involved slightly higher taxes, it was defeated in late 2012.

As is often the case in nascent neighborhoods, there has been some tension over nailing down the appropriate path for development. "I think some people are afraid of what happened in Northern Liberties," says Struble. "Developers moved in and they just sort of changed the place really quickly. I don't necessarily think that's bad, I just think it's awful fast for some people's sensibilities. Here, things sort of plug along at their own pace and everybody is comfortable with that."

There are currently a number of projects that should help increase the vibrancy of the neighborhood, most notably the massive Post Brothers renovation of the Goldtex factory at 12th and Wood. Developers Mike and Matt Pestronk are transforming the vacant building into 160 rental units. 

"I think once you get the residential up to a certain density, the commercial will follow," adds Struble. "We just got the Trestle Inn opened up, it's sort of a fun place -- a funky throwback to the old Trestle Inn, what it used to be. I think you look at the things that have happened in the last ten years, and sort of project those things into the future."
Whether those advances will happen under the Callowhill name remains to be seen.
A city is an ever-evolving organism: There was a point when Bella Vista was a nascent neighborhood, named in honor of an influx of Italian immigrants to South Philly, another when Society Hill needed reinvention via urban renewal efforts and I.M. Pei's towers, and yet another when Rittenhouse Square was renamed after the son of a prominent paper-maker. In this current era of urban growth, neighborhoods are shifting and developing at a rapid pace. Nothing is forever, not even a name. 

LEE STABERT is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. Send feedback here.

Photographs by MICHAEL PERSCIO
Ultimo Brew

Ultimo at 15th and Mifflin

The South Philadelphia Taproom

John Longacre

Goldtex factory 12th and Wood

The soon to be renovated Reading Viaduct
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